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Alex Rodriguez and the Very Blustery RBI Total

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Whenever Alex Rodriguez comes to the plate and his stats appear on the TV screen, the graphics gurus at YES make a point of indicating that his 91 RBIs are second in the American League. This can cause cognitive dissonance. Somewhere in the caveman depths of our brains, contradictory information is at war. "A-Rod year bad!" "A-Rod RBI total good!" How is that possible?

This actually happens all the time. You could call it "Joe Carter: the Graying Years Syndrome," after the fairly miserable seasons that the perennial 100-RBI guy had late in his career. Driving runs in is a matter of opportunity—no runners on, no chance to drive them in. If a hitter is in a good lineup spot in a good offense, he’s going to have a lot of at-bats with runners on, and that in turn will lead to more RBIs.

This is at least partially what is happening with Rodriguez, the Yankees’ cleanup hitter. Take a look at BP’s RBI Report. Rodriguez has seen the fifth-most runners on base in the majors so far this year. That’s the opportunity. He’s had more chances than almost everyone else. However, consider that he’s had the second-most opportunities on the Yankees. Mark Teixeira has seen seven more runners but has driven in five fewer runs. Neither of those numbers is particularly significant, but delve a little further. Teixeira has driven in 17 percent of his baserunners, an above-average amount. Rodriguez, though, has driven in 21 percent, the second best percentage in baseball for any hitter (minimum 250 plate appearances). He trails only Delmon Young of the Twins.

Rodriguez’s rate of driving in others is quite high. An average percentage is about 14 percent. George Brett had the best full season ever (min. 400 PAs) in 1980, the year he hit .390. He plated 27 percent of the runners on base for him. A-Rod’s 21 percent, were he to maintain it through the end of the season, would scrape the bottom of the top 100 seasons. A climb to 22 percent would boost him into the 50 (yes, it’s a fairly meaningless distinction).

So, how is it that Rodriguez is having a poor year by his standards but a great year in the history of driving in runs? The simple answer is he’s saved his best hitting for runners in scoring position, hitting .292/.359/.525 in those situations, as opposed to .236/.305/.410—Rodriguez isn’t starting rallies, but he’s finishing them. The real truth, though, comes back to opportunity. Yankees hitters have set him up nicely by giving him more runners on third than any other hitter in the game. As such, an A-Rod single has had more chance of scoring a run than if he was coming up with the most runners on first, and he’s been able to connect for a league-leading eight sacrifice flies.

You figure those eight sac flies back into Rodriguez’s batting average with RISP and it drops to .273. With RBIs, hero-worshippers like to look for motive, but it’s really a matter of means and opportunity. You come up with enough runners on third and even your groundouts are going to get you an RBI. Has A-Rod been a great clutch hitter? Not really. Does his second-place RBI total redeem his season? Not really. As we’ve said many times, RBIs are a team stat. Rodriguez has been at less than his best, but his teammates and Joe Girardi have done their best to disguise that by putting him in position to disguise it. Robinson Cano, batting in his place in the order, would almost certainly have driven in more runs.